Timothy Egan has a great opinion piece on wildfire prevention in today's New York Times. What it boils down to is that we - meaning the nation - have become increasingly bad at thinking long-term.
Egan writes, "Smart foresters had been warning for years that climate change, drought and stress would lead to bigger, longer, hotter wildfires. They offered remedies, some costly, some symbolic. We did nothing. We chose to wait until the fires were burning down our homes, and then demanded instant relief."
Those bigger, longer, hotter wildfires are a lot more expensive to combat and the Forest Service has, ahem, burned through its firefighting budget over and over again in recent years. That means they've had to borrow money from other projects such as logging, removing dry, hazardous fuels, and restoring damaged forest land.
All of those projects are components in preventing future wildfires. So siphoning money from them only increases the risk of more fires. But Congress (God bless them, no one else will) chose to reject President Obama's request for emergency supplemental wildfire funding, saying the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior should be able to pay for firefighting out of the money they have.
Between those two agencies, there's $886 million left to fight fires this fiscal year. That request from Obama was for additional monies because, as I mentioned earlier, the costs of fighting fires has exceeded the budget multiple times in the past decade. That extra money would have meant enough money to fight this year's fires without borrowing against those other programs that serve as preventative measures.
Now, so far, this year has unexpectedly been one of the mildest fire seasons in the past decade. But it's only the beginning of August. Dozens of fires are currently burning in the West. There are at least two months of fire season left this year and probably more in California, where the season really lasts all year. There's still plenty of time for things to get worse. And the Forest Service is already putting projects on hold, anticipating that they'll need to money by the end of August. Just this week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack predicted that the firefighting budget would be depleted by then.
Congress obviously had its doubts, which is why they denied that extra funding. And that brings me back to Egan's point about how the nation isn't exactly thinking about the long-term. Yes, if it's a mild year, the Forest Service won't need extra money. But think for a minute. The budget for firefighting has been exceeded many times in the past decade, there's an ongoing drought throughout the west, and the average temperatures continue to climb - even if this year is mild, the trend is still toward those longer, hotter wildfires.
It's time to really think about how and when we want to fight fires and what kinds of resources we allocate to those programs. The less we do in advance, the bigger those fires - and the bills - are going to be.